2022 Race for Wisconsin Governor

 Joe Murray  |    July 19, 2021

In June, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers made it official: The first-term Democratic governor announced he will seek reelection in 2022. Now it’s only a matter of time before high-profile Republican candidates enter the race, setting the field for the gubernatorial election next year.

As Evers and his potential challengers gear up for another statewide campaign, they will surely be mindful of today’s political environment compared to 2018, when Evers narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

In 2018, the political environment strongly favored Democrats nationally and in Wisconsin. Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, picked up six governorships including Wisconsin, and gained 323 legislative seats around the country. In Wisconsin, Democrats carried all six top-of-the-ticket races for the first time since 1982. The midterm election dynamic, where the party of the White House loses seats, was alive and well. 

The political environment favored Democrats in 2018 primarily for one reason: former President Donald Trump occupied the White House, and 2018 was Trump’s one and only midterm election. Midterm elections serve as a referendum on incumbent presidents, and voters almost always punish the party that holds the White House. Democrats benefited greatly from total Republican control in Washington, D.C., three years ago.

In next year’s “Biden Midterm,” the political environment will be reversed. With President Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, Republicans should have the political wind at their backs, which could create a challenge for Democrats up and down the ticket. With 15 months to go before the November 2022 midterm election, here’s a brief look at the race for governor as it stands today.

The Candidates

Gov. Tony Evers (D) 

On June 5, 2021, Evers announced he would run for a second four-year term. Evers announced on his Facebook page: “Wisconsin, I’m in. I’m running for re-election. We’ve accomplished a lot in the last few years, but we’re just getting started.” 

Evers served as the state superintendent of public schools before defeating former Gov. Walker in 2018. Similar to his platform in the 2018 election, Evers’ 2022 election platform focuses on improving education, repairing roads, helping small businesses, and improving access to health care through Medicaid expansion. Evers will have to run on his record in 2022, unlike 2018 when he was largely a political blank slate. He will, however, have all the benefits of incumbency, including early organizing and fundraising.

Rebecca Kleefisch (R)

Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is widely expected to jump into the race for governor later this year. Kleefisch served as lieutenant governor from 2011-2018 with Gov. Walker. During the eight years she served as lieutenant governor, Kleefisch was designated by Walker as the administration’s liaison to Wisconsin’s small business community. After Kleefisch and Walker were defeated in 2018, Kleefisch briefly served as the executive director of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission and today serves as a job ambassador for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

Kevin Nicholson (R) 

Kevin Nicholson is currently the president and CEO of No Better Friend Corp., a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization that promotes conservative public policy solutions and ideas. According to Nicholson, No Better Friend’s mission is to “move the conservative movement forward, both in our state and beyond.” Nicholson has worked as a management consultant for financial firms and other corporations. If Nicholson gets in the race, it won’t be his first run for statewide office. Nicholson ran for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary in 2018 but lost to former state Sen. Leah Vukmir. Nicholson is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007-2009.

Bill McCoshen (R)

Bill McCoshen is a longtime lobbyist in Madison and is the managing partner of Capitol Consultants Inc. From 1994-1998, McCoshen served as the commerce secretary of Wisconsin for former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Prior to serving as the commerce secretary, McCoshen was Gov. Thompson’s chief of staff. He is also the current managing partner for the Janesville Jets, a North American Hockey League team.

Jonathan Wichmann (R)

As a first-time candidate who has never held public office, candidate Jonathan Wichmann is a new face in the crowd. When he entered the race in June, Wichmann was highly critical of Evers for “prolonged shutdowns, delayed unemployment benefits, draconian restrictions on small businesses, and delayed reaction to civil unrest and riots in Kenosha,” according to his campaign website. Wichmann will have to compete with the other better-known Republican candidates for attention in next year’s primary election.

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Another close election or Republican advantage?

Two political dynamics could easily come into play in the 2022 race for Wisconsin governor: Wisconsin’s tendency for close statewide elections and the president’s party historically losing governorships in midterm elections.

Since 2016, partisan, top-of-the-ticket races have been extremely close. Trump carried Wisconsin by .07% in 2016; Evers defeated Walker by 1.1% in 2018; and Biden ousted Trump by .06% in 2020. Big spending, hotly contested elections are often won or lost by the narrowest of margins in the Badger State. Political insiders and prognosticators expect Wisconsin to be hotly contested again next year, likely breaking all previous fundraising and spending records. 

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Finally, there’s the dynamic where the president’s party loses gubernatorial seats in off-presidential elections. In a recent Smart Politics article, political scientist Dr. Eric Ostermeier wrote, “A Smart Politics analysis of Wisconsin electoral data finds that Democrats have lost a staggering 32 of the last 33 elections for governor when a Democrat resides in the White House dating back to 1855.” This does not guarantee that Evers will lose next year, but it certainly reinforces the point. 

When Trump was elected in 2016, his election made it very difficult for Walker to hold on in the 2018 midterm election. Now Evers will have to navigate the current political terrain with Biden in the White House. If history is any guide, Evers will have a very tough race next year.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA. 

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